Tag Archives: education

keep austin — or wherever you are — weird: 4 lessons from #heweb11

Many people may have heard the phrase “Keep Austin Weird” promoting the Texas city. Less known, but what we learned when in the city for HighEdWeb11, is its true meaning: The ubiquitous T-shirts read “Keep Austin Weird: Support Your Local Businesses.” The city (any city) would be much less interesting if its corner grocery stores were supplanted by SuperWalMarts, eclectic eateries usurped by Applebees and quirky cafes succumbed to Starbucks.

It’s a lesson we in higher ed need to heed. Not just because of anticipated increased competition from online schools, but because we’re sometimes our own worst enemies at what we do. Here are a few lessons, related to Austin and higher ed, from the many great sessions.

Be nice. Austin’s reputation as a friendly city proved well-earned. Bartenders, baristas and bellhops alike are incredibly nice, and complete strangers struck up conversations with us. Alana Riley’s project management presentation included plenty of good information, but I especially liked her discussion of being positive and nice. Psychology shows, she noted, we think better when we’re happy. “It doesn’t take much for someone to feel appreciated,” she said. “And it doesn’t take much for someone to feel unappreciated.” Have you made your co-workers, students, friends and/or loved ones feel appreciated lately? If not, why not?

Be yourself. Austin embraces its weirdness, its quirks, its offbeat charm. Karlyn Morrissette’s oddly titled “What Colleges Can Learn from the Insane Clown Posse” taught us, among other things, the controversial performers got where they are by knowing who they are and following through. Too many schools, Karlyn observed, try to be everything to everyone which makes them nothing special. (She also had a great line about colleges extolling their exclusivity: “Why do you brag about all the students you don’t educate? Brag about those you do educate.”)

Be interesting. Austin gave us a food truck festival, a Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) celebration, a nightly event where people watch bats swarm a bridge, live music everywhere and more. Colleges are inherently interesting places, so why do so many things (committees, university politics, acronym mania) paint such an uninteresting picture? We should focus on the engaging things going on around us and promote them any way we can. Georgy Cohen, whose “Carrying the Banner: Reinventing News on Your University Website” earned best presentation honors, discussed how evolving technology allows us to tell so many more interesting stories about intriguing people in new ways, and to share them widely.

Be about people. With apologies for tortured grammar, my point is that people matter most. The nice folks in Austin do customer service so well in large part because folks seem so interested in people and in helping them. Keynote speaker Chris Wilson reminded us that, despite the technology, what we do is really about finding ways to help people. Web 2.0 is not about technology, he said, it’s about caring for the people who use our site or comprise your community. Or, as Mike Petroff noted in a session on customer service via social media: “You have to out-care your competition.” What a great goal!

It was such awesome city that we were sad to leave Austin (or “Awestin,” if you prefer). Wouldn’t you want your campus to be one where people — from the future students bowled over by tours, visitors to special events and especially alumni — are sad when they have to leave it? That’s where the web and social media come in, providing a way those who love our campus never really leave, as they remain a part of community. We miss Austin already, but it gave us so many great lessons that will live on.


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#pseweb11 review: the importance of being human.

It may sound strange, but my top takeaway from the 2011 Canadian Post-Secondary Web Conference, among all the talk of emerging technologies, involves the importance of being human.

This thread tied up neatly in the keynote by Scott Stratten, the engaging fellow behind @unmarketing, as he humorously yet passionately championed humanity, customer service and authenticity as a way we can better do our jobs in higher education. Tools are just channels, and social media does not automatically provide connections any more than a content management system magically generates content.

Scott doesn’t know the ROI of responding to a student who tweets their acceptance to your college, “and I don’t care,” he said. “Just do it!” As to how we let complicated policies and committees get in the way of good conversations, he recalled asking an educational leader (tongue in cheek, I assume): “What’s your social media policy about talking?” The response, an excellent one: “If someone asks me a question, I just answer.”

Both Scott and Penn State’s Robin Smail (@robin2go, in “You Can’t Stop the Signal, Mal … Authentic Social Media) brought up the now famous example of the Red Cross social media worker who mistweeted on the company account about “getting slizzerd.” And how the Red Cross quickly said “oops,” reassured people they were sober and engendered a lot of goodwill. We are a forgiving society full of humans who make mistakes. In social media, we are greater when we act as humans and connect as humans. Social media channels are merely opportunities to connect … it is our content, our humanity, that determines if they are effective.

Many other presentations in a conference addressing technology focused on the human touch. In “Herding Cats: Web Governance in Higher Education,” Mark Greenfield (@markgr) of the University at Buffalo said the keys to creating a great institutional web presence do not involve web tools … they involve the education and empowerment of everyone working on the web and the buy-in of top leadership. With “King Content: A Social Media Audit,” JP Rains (@jplaurentian) of Laurentian University gave a great study of effective content among several institutions, which all came back to knowing your audience and interacting with them. Ryan McNutt (@ryanmcnutt) of Delhousie University, presenting “Fire and Ice, Status Updates and Tweets: Emergency Communications in the Social Media Age,” likewise looked at how relationships with your campus and community are vital bits of crisis communication plans.

PSEWEB also saw an upsurge in presentations related to the mobile web — increasingly important as our users go increasingly mobile — and how to produce great video on a low or no budget. My presentation on geosocial media (viewable online) may still represent a novel subject, but the audience was wonderful. The conference once again had great variety in the presentations and the institutions represented, and I learned such a marvelous melange of lessons and met such a magnificent mix of people.

Moreover, if you follow the #pseweb hashtag, you’ll see this conference creates a community that interacts throughout the year. Much praise to the tireless Melissa Cheater (@mmbc) and everyone who came together for a first-rate post-secondary education gathering!


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review: diy u … viewing the end of college as we know it?

When a faculty reading circle announced the selection and discussion of Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I was more than a bit intrigued. I’d read great things about the book and here was an excuse to check it out … as well as see what colleagues think.

Reaction? Wow. So much food for thought! I didn’t totally agree with everything within the pages, but a few major themes and threads emerged that I’ve pondered quite a bit. They include:

The separation of content from delivery in education. Just as iTunes decoupled individual songs from the traditional album distribution model and Hulu divorces shows from networks and the usual delivery method, the Internet has placed countless opportunities for learning at our fingertips either free or at marginal cost. These range from the sophisticated (MIT’s free broadcasting of classes online) to the homegrown (semi-instructional YouTube videos), but all represent a challenge to the traditional authoritarian delivery system. The regular college experience remains popular, but is knowledge now more of a buyers’ than sellers’ market?

The opportunities of technology. Instead of seeing technology is a threat to education, should we look at it as a tremendous opportunity? Twitter and Facebook have revolutionized my ability to create/maintain friendships and share/gain information, YouTube and Skype have redefined video communication and cloud computing kicked collaboration wide open. As educators, we shouldn’t fear the power of these tools; we should figure out how they can help us deliver an enhanced academic experience.

Is the traditional college experience for everyone? At the risk of sounding cliche, I value my college years as much (or more?) for what I learned outside the classroom. It was a key developmental milestone for me — from shy country boy to socialized (read: slightly less shy) scholar with the confidence to find my own path. Anyone who wants that experience should have a chance, but does everyone want (or need) four years of college? What about shorter specialized programs that fill vital needs? And as someone pointed out in our discussion, our non-traditional students don’t gain the residential college experience, yet they still thrive from pursuing their educations.

The trouble with rankings. How many people complain about the US News rankings, yet put out a news release on their listing? The book raises serious points to ponder. Like how raising tuition (i.e. higher expenditures per student) helps a college’s rating. Or that chasing a certain academic profile could mean shutting out promising students from disadvantaged backgrounds who need education most. We all believe in acaedmic quality, but how do we weigh pursuing high rankings and fruitful access at the same time? (And Malcolm Gladwell checked in this week with his problems with US News ratings.)

The faculty discussion was fascinating as well. Some blasted some of its more controversial suggestions and offerings. Others very much agreed with the challenges and opportunities Kamenetz laid out. I just appreciated the conversation taking place at all, which in itself demonstrates that DIY U is a remarkable read.

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SCVNGR hunt: using geosocial gaming for orientation and education.

In the arena of geosocial apps and gaming, SCVNGR may represent one of the top potential challengers. For end users, SCVNGR offers a rich experience combining the best features of Foursquare and Gowalla. As an app for higher education and business, it provides immense potential for created user experience.

Our college used it to implement a scavenger hunt at all eight freshman orientation sessions where incoming students formed teams and followed clues that allowed them to meet people while gaining more information about college functions and facts. The collection process involved points for texting correct clues, with bonus points for the first teams done. With the prizes being Oswego hoodies for top teams, students threw themselves into the competition with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Brandi Ostrander, who coordinated our scavenger hunt, said the technical part was not difficult — somewhat easy compared to finding 20 offices/partners to participate (including web communication folks getting feedback on a new website). She created and put in tasks, locations and the point system, guessing about a “50/50 split” with what SCVNGR developers did for the project.

Scavenger hunters on smartphones downloaded the easy-to-use free SCVNGR app; those with older phones could text SCVNGR (728647). The game started with receiving directions to their first location, and those with the app had the added benefit of a Google Map. Completing tasks and earning points could include inputting a specific keyword, inputting any response (for an open question) or posting a photo. After the task, the program sends the next location, which can be randomized (we preferred this as opposed to all hunters converging at once, although smartphones could see a linear menu). Incorrect answers could lose points, though players could advance after a number of tries.

As an administrator, you can use most SCVNGR features for free, but if you need a lot of development help or something highly customized, you can contract at various price levels. Our Orientation Office bought a year-long unlimited plan, with the huge advantage being nearly instant support — otherwise, you have to post a question on a message board or browse the site FAQ. With our extended support, we plan to implement a similar game during Opening Week to help students learn even more about the campus.

As far as everyday end-user experience, SCVNGR is robust and impressive. At any time, users can create venues, write tips and post photos (and get points for all of the above). You can create your own scavenger hunts and point systems fairly easily, and play existing games or hunts others have already designed. Unfortunately, like Gowalla, you can get stuck with poor data hygiene if the information is wrong. And like Gowalla and Foursquare, you can find duplicates of the same venue, but with the exception of more controlled apps like Yelp, this seems a common challenge to geosocial platforms.

Did the students enjoy the scavenger hunt? “They had a blast with it,” Ostrander said. “They thought it was a lot of fun and met a lot of people.” The most important thing, she suggested, is the game coordinator needs to be very organized, have everything set well in advance and know how to do with unexpected results — like when students lost service inside our cavernous Campus Center and had to repeat some steps (they remembered the clue words, and Ostrander had them re-enter them).

“We wanted to keep it simple, but you can also do multimedia messages, like photo or video clues,” i.e. find this building or person, Ostrander said. “I don’t think we tapped into its full potential.” It is that potential — as well as perhaps the best usability of any geosocial app I’ve seen — that could turn SCVNGR into a huge player in the market.


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twitter as a teaching tool? tis true.

For my Media Copywriting class this semester, I added Twitter use to the syllabus. I didn’t add it for the sake of saying I was using Twitter to teach — after all, I preach goals first, tools second. My particular goal involved trying to boost and broaden class discussion.

A perennial challenge is that, while my students are bright and articulate, they often prove reluctant to participate in, or initiate, class discussion. I decided to start them 140 characters at a time. Their homework, on most class days, includes an assignment to answer via Twitter with a class-relevant hashtag. These work best when cultivating more thinking than a simple quantitative response. Top tweet topics so far include:

Name a Super Bowl™ ad you thought was effective and why. As I’ve said before, having the Super Bowl™ during a class that involves advertising is a boon. Using students’ Twitter responses, I could call on them directly, show the ad they mention and ask for their analysis. When I tried this without Twitter, even as an official assignment, drawing participation was more difficult.

What do you think your brand’s biggest weakness is? Students tend to select the brands they’ll work with their semester (Nike, Dunkin Donuts, Tim Hortons, Wegmans, Fender, etc.) based on strengths or qualities they like. But knowing a brand’s weakness, or perceived weakness, can inform the creative process as well, and provides a nice entree to critical thinking. It also ties into a research assignment I give them that involves a SWOT analysis, finding target demographics/psychographics and critiquing their brands’ current campaign.

Tweet about the first thing you encountered on Thursday that annoyed you. They looked at me funny when I assigned it, but nonetheless talked about roommates, landlords, sinus headaches, slow drivers and other professors. I was providing practice in InDesign, so my in-class assignment was: Do an ad for a product (real or imagined) that would solve your problem (which also illustrates the suffering point concept). The students came up with all kinds of products including landlord repellent, traffic-beating hovercraft and The Shrink Ray, which neutralizes annoying psychiatrists. The amount of ingenuity many put into it was impressive, and the opportunity to blend creativity with problem-solving quite valuable.

As with the creative process itself, the quality of answers are only as good as the questions asked, so my challenge is to keep coming up with good questions. And I’ve noticed the class doesn’t interact with each other (although they do with me) on Twitter — though those accustomed to interacting via Facebook probably do so that way, and I’m not going to require them to cross-converse via Twitter unless I have good reason. But their rate of completing Twitter assignments exceeds 95 percent. And, strange but true, Twitter assignment completion actually runs higher than class attendance.

So Twitter — or any social media platform — can work in the classroom, as long as you tie it to goals you want to reach and are willing to put the time into it to make it relevant.


Filed under Web

web writing webinar ahead.

Of all the things I have to promote, I’m most reticent about promoting myself. But I’ve been asked (nicely) to make sure everyone knows that I’m presenting a Webinar titled Web Writing 360: How To Write Right For All Online Media on May 5.

The valuable Higher Ed Experts service presents the Webinar, and it’s the first of a two-part series that also features the wonderful Mary Beth Kurilko presenting Web Writer Coaching 101: How To Find, Train and Nurture Web Contributors On Campus on May 6. Since content is king (or queen) on the Web, I welcomed the opportunity when HEE’s Karine Joly contacted me to do this session. To preview a stat I use in the Webinar, did you know there are an estimated 182 billion sites on the Web across 106 million active domains? How can you be seen and heard among that crowd? Simple.

That’s part of the answer: Simple. As in, keep it simple. Get to the point, make it easy to read, give ’em what they want. The Webinar also will touch on effective content for blogs, Facebook and Twitter, since social media continues to become a larger slice of the pie consumed by the estimated 1.6 billion people surfing the Web.

For more information, visit the Higher Ed Experts event page. I hope to talk to you! And we now return you to your regular programming.

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tabs on all media.

One of my favorite parts of working on campus is the opportunity to guest lecture. In sharing whatever knowledge I may have retained, I often learn from the class as well.

Friday my guest stint was in the Music Business class team-taught by my friends Rob and Dan. It’s a novel offering, where those interested in being musicians or sound engineers or promoters learn a 360-degree view of The Biz. Their big projects are to promote the upcoming Collage concert and — more interestingly — writing, arranging, recording, packaging and selling a single performed by talented twin sisters in the class.

Previous times when I spoke in the class, I gave a rundown on publicity, press releases, working with media and all that jazz. But since so much promotion is moving toward grassroots, street teams and social media, this concentration seemed excessive. In a new wrinkle, I addressed selling a story or idea via the SUCCES points of Made To Stick (the best ideas/campaigns are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and good Stories) plus a bit about writing news releases.

But I also wanted to show them around social media options. They knew much of that stuff — especially with Facebook — but I’m sufficiently immersed in the field that I shared a couple things that seemed new. Only two of them had Twitter accounts, so I showed them the instantaneous nature of feedback by saying Twittizens! I’m showing Twitter to a Music Business class. Say hi and tell us your favorite album. In no time, the Twitterverse responded — about a dozen tweeps chimed on the subject in all.

Fig. A: The Twitterverse responds quickly to an in-class query.

Fig. A: The Twitterverse responds quickly to an in-class query.

I also let them know how some musicians were using Twitter and how entities used the search tool as a marketing device. Like when I mentioned Whiskeytown in a tweet and ended up being followed by @cardinology, the Twitter account for Ryan Adams’ subsequent band, The Cardinals. @cardinology uses the Twitter stream to showcase new demos, give tour info and post recent live tracks. It’s a safe bet more than two class members are on Twitter now.

But here’s the unexpected: What do you think the class had questions about? Print media! Yes, almost every question concerned where and how to better promote their activities through traditional print media. This is a group that not only reads newspapers, but values them. Take that, those who argue that young people don’t care about print media any more!

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school’s [always] in.

The long-lasting popularity of ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock is both amazing and instructive. The brief lessons on math, grammar, social studies and more first aired in 1972 and can, at any moment, stick a song or subject in the minds of generations of learners. The series had a 1996 tribute album with alternative acts such as Pavement, The Lemonheads, Blind Melon, Buffalo Tom and Moby; Schoolhouse Rock Live! had a long and successful tour; and the Schoolhouse Rock: Election Collection came out in time for last year’s pivotal vote.

Yes, I’m a big fan. “Conjunction Junction” taught me about hooking up words and phrases and clauses. “I’m Just A Bill” provided a perfectly concise civics lesson on how bills become laws (while also being parodied on The Simpsons, the ultimate pop culture honor). And “Three Is A Magic Number” — showing how you could add the digits of any multiple of three to get a multiple of three — inspired a love of math that lasted until … my first calculus course. (If only there had been a Schoolhouse Rock calculus episode?)

In my business, there’s an odd notion that we can not educate and entertain at the same time. Schoolhouse Rock shows nothing could be further than the truth. The best teachers find ways to engage their students even as they impart knowledge. For some reason, the lessons I recall best came from professors who could make me laugh as well as learn (I’m not smart enough to know if there’s a connection between firing up the brain’s pleasure receptors and memory retention). If you don’t think a great professor can move listeners to tears (and laughter) while presenting a lesson, you’ve never seen Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture (viewed more than 8.8 million times).

Same goes with us college communicators. Students expect to have fun when they come to campus, so why are most materials so mirthless? With pictures of soaring spires, ivy-covered buildings surrounded by fall foliage, classrooms of studious multicultural learners, we want to look like serious institutions, but can’t we loosen up? We may show pictures of students smiling or sharing a (mild) laugh, but why can’t we try to write copy and use photos/videos that actually make future students smile or laugh? I received more than 100 brochures while choosing a college, all looking and sounding alike, and am sure I would have remembered if even one school had showed a sense of humor.

I believe it can be done: That we can inject more levity, more life into our work, whatever it is. That in these times, we should strive to make others’ days lighter in what we do. If you don’t believe that there is value in entertainment, in making others smile and laugh — well, then you probably don’t believe that three is a magic number.


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